the problem with science

The problem with science is that it’s conducted by scientists. And scientists are human.

At least as far as we know.

The reason this is a problem is that human beings are simply not rational creatures. We are far too often guided by emotion—what feels right—as opposed to what’s actually backed up by empirical evidence. And even when it comes to empirical evidence, often that evidence is incorrectly interpreted, improperly gathered, or just plain flat out wrong. Intentionally or unintentionally.

An extremely interesting article recently published in the Atlantic (which I highly recommend) highlights this. The article is about Dr. John Ioannidis, a Greek medical researcher who, in 2005, published two papers on the amount of errors in medical science.

The first, in PLoS Medicine, describes how 80% of non-randomized medical studies are wrong, 25% of randomized studies are wrong, and 10% of the strictest large-scale randomized studies are wrong. The second paper, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, reveals that out of the 49 most highly regarded research findings in the past 13 years, when 34 of them were retested, 14 were shown to be wrong or exaggerated.

This is not good. One specific example is the 1998 study which linked the MMR vaccine to autism. It was found that the researchers deliberately distorted their results, and now we’re seeing a rise in cases of the measles in Europe and the U.S.

Wonderful.

And of course the reason that someone would intentionally publish incorrect results is that science is highly competitive, and often in order to secure funding—or often even keep their job—a researcher has to publish exciting, new, and controversial papers. And if the actual results aren’t any of those things, there’s a lot of pressure on researchers to fiddle with the results until they become something that would seem worthy of being published in a top journal.

But the mistakes are not always intentional. Sometimes they’re due to the way we handle statistics. For example, a 95% confidence interval—which is a standard benchmark—means that there is only a 5% chance that the observed effect was due to random chance, and not to the drug or whatever else the scientist was testing. But if hundreds of studies come out every single year, many of them are bound to be wrong even if the researchers are honest and the experiments were conducted well. This ScienceNews article gives a more thorough description of the problem.

Of course, there’s another very important problem with science: the public. If scientists want access to government money, they have to be able to convince the public that the work they’re doing is worthwhile. Not always an easy task, considering the fact that the public, just like the scientific community, is comprised of irrational humans.

Just look at global warming. The consensus among the scientific community is that global warming is real, happening right now, and is primarily caused by humans. Unfortunately, a lot of people out there don’t want to believe this because it makes them uncomfortable on an emotional level. They don’t want to admit that they’re a part of what’s harming the global ecosystem, and they don’t want to have to change their behavior.

Unfortunately, in response to this many scientists have taken the sensationalist approach, insisting on using words like “catastrophic” and “irreversible” to try and gain public support. This approach can backfire horribly though, as seen with the IPCC 2007 report which stated, among other things, that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035. Climate change deniers latched onto this, and used it to come to the rather dubious conclusion that because that one number was wrong, all climate science must be a lie, and all climate scientists themselves are godless commies, or something.

So yeah, basically the problem with science is the fact that people—both scientists and “normies”, as we like to call the rest of you—are irrational creatures who often use emotion rather than evidence to reach conclusions. And this is a problem that needs to be addressed, because regardless of the severity of global warming, our population is increasing and our resources are dwindling, and we’re going to need scientific solutions to these problems. And in order to achieve those solutions, we’re going to need a public who is supportive of scientific endeavors.

At least in the short term. As I’ve mentioned before, once my doomsday device is ready none of you will have to worry about any of this anymore.

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revision

William Faulkner once famously said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” Apparently he meant this metaphorically, and not as an exhortation to go out and perform some sort of bizarre and ritualistic sacrifice of all those you hold dear in life. Seems like he could’ve made that more clear.

But hey, lesson learned.

I’m currently in the process of revising my first novel. It’s a nonfiction account of my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa, appropriately entitled, The Peace Corpse: Misadventures in Love and Africa.

I’m trying to do everything like I’m supposed to. In Stephen King’s excellent book on writing, appropriately entitled, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he says that after you finish your first draft, you should set it aside and not even look at it for at least six weeks. So that’s what I did. I even marked six weeks out on my calendar, because I’m just that anal.

Sure enough, the day the six weeks were up I eagerly brought out the manuscript, ready to turn something that was maybe just sort of ok into a literary masterpiece of such magnificence and profundity that it would instantly skyrocket me to such esteem and admiration that my mere presence would cause beautiful women to spontaneously tear off their clothes and enthusiastically wrestle each other for the mere opportunity to talk to me.

Because that would be awesome.

And yeah, if my writing—and especially my editing—ability were as unique and colorful as my imagination, maybe I could approach something close to that level of success. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Because as I read through my manuscript with what were supposed to be “fresh” eyes, I found that while there were parts that I really liked, and parts that I felt could be a lot better, I didn’t have the slightest idea what I could do to actually make any of it better. Which is especially frustrating because there were many times while I was writing it where I was thinking, “Yeah, this part sucks, but I’ll fix it during the revision,” but now I don’t remember exactly which parts those were, and in particular I don’t know how to fix any of it.

Dammit.

What I need is for someone who isn’t me to go through it and tell me which parts don’t work. The problem with this is that it’s hard to find someone who is willing to sit down and read through a 98,000-word manuscript on a computer screen and make critical comments about it. That’s a pretty big request to make of someone.

Of course, the other problem with this is that I’m an arrogant ass who doesn’t take criticism very well. But I’m going to have to get over that.

Regardless, I’m determined to get it published this year. Because 2011 is the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, and my book has exactly 50 chapters. Plus, I think the fact that it’s the 50th anniversary might make the general public more interested in it than they otherwise might be, and if nothing else, setting the goal of publishing it this year gives me something to motivate myself with.

But the fact that I have to face is that it’s entirely possible that no publisher will want to take it. Plenty of Peace Corps Volunteers write memoirs, and I have no doubt that most of them are better written than mine, with a lot more description and character development, and a lot less random and unnecessary swearing. And that’s cool. If I can’t find a publisher, I’ll self-publish. Which means of course that my Mommy will be the only one to actually buy a copy, but that’s ok. It’s not like this is the only book I ever plan on writing.

Of course, there’s a completely different type of revision I’m doing right now: revising scientific papers. Yeah, in the past few weeks I’ve worked on no less than four separate papers. Hell, if all goes well I’ll have at least five scientific publications this year—two research papers as first author, one as second author, a comment paper as second author, and a chapter of a computational chemistry textbook (first author). That’s actually pretty damn good for a guy who claims he’s not that great of a scientist.

It’s kind of got me thinking that maybe I’m making a horrible, horrible mistake by leaving science. After all, while I’m not exactly the greatest scientist ever, I’m actually pretty good at what I do. If nothing else, I know how to write papers and grants, and I know how to interact with people. And that’s about half of what a scientist does anyway.

What really struck me was something an American researcher I met at the conference in November said: “Doing science is like a hobby.” Now those weren’t his exact words, and I’m just now getting to the edge of being too drunk to type coherently, but the reason this struck me is that I always thought that you had to be passionate about science in order to do it well. But the fact is, you don’t. But at the very least, you have to see it as a hobby. It has to be something you enjoy devoting a good chunk of time to. And I think it’s possible for me to see science that way.

But only if I no longer have the delusion that I could be commercially successful as a writer. And that’s why I’m still planning to move to Australia in May, in order to devote an entire year to nothing but writing. And if I can’t come up with something marketable in that time, if everything I submit to agents and publishers gets rejected, I think I could give up my dream of being a writer and be content to be a scientist.

But only if I know for certain that my dream of being a successful author is just a dream.

Regardless, there’s a third type of revision I’m doing at the moment. I’m 31 years old today. 31 years old and $80,740.20 in debt. I’ve had a great time screwing around these past 31 years, but I think it’s time for me to start taking things seriously. I was loaned that money for college and graduate school in good faith, and I fully intend to pay back every dime that I owe. And if that means I have to take a job that I hate for a while, so be it. I knew exactly what I was getting into.

Of course, this doesn’t in any way change my plan to screw around in Australia for a year. I mean, I’m serious about my responsibilities, but I’m not that serious.

science in China

Not too long ago, China was 14th in the world for the number of scientific studies published. Now, according to the National Academy of Sciences, they’re second only to the United States.

In your face, Germany! And everywhere else.

I have the extraordinary and unbelievable privilege of working at the top biological institute in China. Extraordinary, because I’m the first—and up until recently the only—non-Chinese postdoc the Institute has ever had. Unbelievable, because, well, I’m really not that great of a scientist. The only reason I got the job is because I’m a Westerner, and right now they really want more Westerners to come and do science in China.

There’s a huge push in China right now to make science a national priority, and the Institute is an example of this. Because while most researchers have to spend a good chunk of their time and energy writing grants and looking for funding, the heads of the research groups at the Institute are basically just handed money from the government and told to go do science.

Of course, the heads of the research groups at the Institute are no ordinary scientists. They’re basically the top people—or nearly so—in their respective fields. And while none of them has ever won a Nobel Prize (yet), I’m pretty confident that within the next 5-10 years at least one of them is going to.

The funny thing is, every single one of them was educated in America.

And this is where I think America is making a huge mistake. Because while China (and India, and South Korea) are substantially increasing their investments in science and engineering, America is actually talking about cutting back on funding for science. And if that’s not bad enough, the House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology is currently being filled by people who, to say the least, are not exactly friends of the scientific community.

But there’s another far more subtle mistake I think America is making. A few months ago I met a very talented researcher from a University in Hong Kong. Like so many Chinese scientists he was educated in America, but was unable to find a permanent position in the States because he was Chinese, and had worked for a Chinese boss. Apparently there’s still a mindset in America that Chinese are very intelligent and hard-working, but narrow-minded, uncreative, and unable to think critically. As a result, many highly qualified and skilled Chinese scientists can’t find employment in the States.

Of course, China is more than happy to welcome them back.

Ironically, if you want to get a good research position in China, you have to do your PhD—or at least a postdoc or two—in America. Despite the growing prestige of places like Peking University and Tsinghua University (essentially the Harvard and MIT of China), it’s still believed that the best place you can get an education to prepare yourself for a career in science is in the United States.

At least for now.

Education in China is still primarily based on rote memorization, but I think that’s starting to change. As more and more Chinese people get exposed to Western education, they’re going to increasingly demand that their own children are taught critical thinking and problem-solving skills, in addition to the memorization of facts.

Regardless, I can honestly say without any feeling of shame that I am the single dumbest, most ignorant person in my research group. Because despite having gone through the Chinese education system, everyone I work with is freaking brilliant, dedicated, and in no way lacking critical thinking skills. In fact, the only advantage I have over my colleagues is that I’m a native English speaker. Which means I can read a scientific paper in a fraction of the time, and I can write a scientific paper better than anyone else in my group—including my boss.

But this advantage is fleeting. Every day the Chinese are improving their English skills, and every day they’re putting out more scientific papers. America may be number one at the moment, but if we’re not careful, China (and India, and South Korea) are going to fly right by us, maybe giving a condescending, “Thanks for all the help,” as they pass.

And maybe that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. America needs something to inspire us to value science and education, and if it takes China becoming the world leader in science, so be it. Because the thing is, when countries compete for scientific prestige, everybody wins.

But I’m glad I’m here learning Chinese and making connections in the scientific community of China, just in case.

fighting the Big Guys

I’ve decided that I want my legacy as a scientist to be that I wasn’t afraid to stand up to the Big Guys. I want to be able to proudly say that I fought for my ideals—and for scientific integrity—even when I knew that doing so would quite possibly destroy any chance of my continuing in research as a profession. Which is kind of funny, if you consider the fact that I’m planning on leaving the field anyway to pursue a career in stupid humor.

A few months ago some friends of one of my colleagues sent him a couple of papers that had been published in a well-respected scientific journal. Apparently they thought these papers would be useful and applicable to the work that my colleague is doing. So my colleague read the papers, and initially he was impressed. The authors were addressing a serious and fundamental problem in our field, and they used lots of fancy equations and high-level theories. But after he’d finished with both, my colleague was left with a vague but persistent feeling of intellectual discomfort. Something wasn’t quite right. Somewhere, there was a critical flaw in the argument the authors were making.

I won’t bore you with the technical details (you’re welcome) but basically, a fundamental error was made. For example, imagine someone came up with an extremely intricate and detailed set of instructions for the best way to drive from New York City to another specific city in the United States. And I mean like everything from which roads to take to how many hours per day you should drive, to where you should stop for gas, food, and lodging to minimize your expenses.

Sounds pretty good, right?

Now suppose the city you’re meant to drive to using these instructions is Honolulu.

That’s the kind of mistake the authors made. The biggest problem with this is that if someone has no knowledge of United States geography and doesn’t realize that Honolulu is in Hawaii, and that Hawaii is an island and kind of impossible to drive to, they might waste a lot of time and effort following the instructions given in the papers, and basically end up at the bottom of the ocean.

Honestly, I have no idea how these papers made it past peer review. The only logical explanation I can think of is that the main author is a Big Guy in our field, and he’s also friends with the editor of the journal.

Personally, I find it kind of upsetting and discouraging that this sort of thing can happen in science. I mean, research is supposed to stand or fail based on its scientific merits, not on how much of a Big Guy the author is, or how good of friends he is with the editor of a particular journal. When I brought this up with my boss, he gave me a pretty fatalistic response. According to him, “30% of papers are useless, 30% are useful, and 10-20% are just completely wrong.”

This raises two very unsettling questions: 1) How can the scientific community as a whole be comfortable with the fact that 10-20% of papers that pass peer review are completely wrong?, and 2) Um, what about the other 20-30%?

Fortunately, there is at least a potential option to remedy the situation: write a comment paper. Basically, write a paper that explains the mistakes made in the original paper, and have it published in the same journal so at the very least there’s a greater chance that more people will be made aware of the mistake before they get in their cars and try to drive to Hawaii.

I say that this is a potential option because in reality, if the original author is a Big Guy, it’s very rare that a comment paper will be published criticizing something they’ve done—even if it’s wrong. Part of the reason for this is that the journal itself will be reluctant to publish the comment paper because that’s basically an admission that they published something that was factually incorrect, but often the comment paper is never written in the first place. Because if you criticize a Big Guy openly, the next time you try to publish a paper on your own work you’d better hope that none of the editors or reviewers are friends with that Big Guy, or they might just make your life difficult out of spite.

The reason I’m involved in all of this is that my colleague—who is also a fellow postdoc and good friend of mine—asked me to be coauthor of the comment paper he wrote on the original two papers.

And yeah, he didn’t ask me to be coauthor because he wanted my scientific expertise. The guy is a freaking genius and doesn’t need any help from me as far as the science is concerned, and I’m kind of a dumbass, but his English isn’t that great. And he never said so, but I think he feels the paper would carry more weight if it had a Western name on it.

I’ll be honest, aside from editing and correcting the English, I really didn’t really have a solid understanding of what the critical flaws in the original papers were, and what exactly we were saying with the comment paper. But I appreciated that my colleague was fighting the good fight, and I was happy to be a part of it—even if my part was mostly symbolic.

But here’s the thing. We submitted the paper to the journal along with suggestions for possible reviewers (common procedure), but two months later we got a response from the main author of the original papers (the Big Guy). Apparently, the editor never even gave the comment paper to the reviewers, but instead simply sent it to the big guy so he could develop a rebuttal. This is not common procedure. Generally, the original author will have a chance to respond to the comments, but only after they’ve been published. The fact that the editor never even sent our comment paper to the reviewers is a little suspicious. What’s even more suspicious is that the original author said he was hoping to resolve the issue “off-line”. In other words, he doesn’t want our comment paper published. Which is understandable. After all, if my colleague is right, it’s going to make the Big Guy look pretty stupid.

So yeah, I understand it, but at the same time I’m kind of pissed. There is a procedure for these things, and the fact that the editor sent our comment paper to the Big Guy but not the reviewers is, to be frank, bullshit. And the response we got from the Big Guy was not exactly friendly or straightforward. He basically tried to dismiss my colleague’s arguments as trivial or unimportant, without actually addressing them directly. And in his response, he made it even more clear that his original argument is fundamentally and fatally wrong.

Now I’m determined to fight him. I’ll admit that when we submitted our original comment paper I didn’t really, um, understand what it was about, but now I’ve gone back and studied all the relevant theory and background material, and I’m confident that we can make a solid an irrefutable argument. Because yeah, the first draft of our comment paper wasn’t very good. Partly because of my colleague’s lack of English skills, but mostly because my lack of knowing what the hell we were supposed to be talking about.

And yeah, going forward with this would be kind of a stupid move for me if I was serious about a career in science. If I were smart and pragmatic, I would just let it go. But since I’m planning on leaving the field anyway, I’d rather go out on in a figurative blaze of literal glory. Or a literal blaze of figurative glory.

But definitely one of those two.

goals

What are your goals in life? If you’re reading this right now, one of them obviously isn’t to make the absolute most of every possible waking moment, but that’s cool.

Not everyone needs goals. Some people are perfectly content to just go with the flow, and accept whatever life throws at them. The Zen of Apathy. In some respects that’s enviable. It must be nice to be so at peace with your life, and to never feel the need to fight against the current. Unfortunately for me, I’m way too anal focused for that. I seem to need plans, schemes, or at least a rough outline of a goal in order to be happy.

My main goal right now is to become a commercially successful writer. Emphasis on the “commercially successful” part, because writing truly satisfies me in a way that nothing else does, and while I’ll never stop writing no matter what, it would be nice if I could support myself financially by doing what I love.

The key to achieving your goals, I think, is to break them down into smaller, specific, everyday pieces. “I want to be happy” is not a useful goal because it’s too vague and ambiguous. What really makes you happy? What do you need to do to get it? Will what you think will make you happy actually make you happy in reality? Why don’t you love me for who I am?

Wait. Scratch that last one.

In that respect, “I want to be a commercially successful writer” isn’t that useful of a goal either, because it doesn’t give any specifics. How exactly does one become a commercially successful writer? Write, obviously, but if it were as simple as that, all bloggers would be millionaires, and the world would promptly collapse under the weight of their combined pretension.

So yeah, you have to make your overall goal specific and realistic, and you have to break it down into smaller goals that can be accomplished on a more or less daily basis. But how should the overall goal be broken down, and what specific steps should be taken?

Depending on you’re goal, you’re probably going to have to do some research. Fortunately, there’s the internet, where all shopping and porn-related dreams really do come true. And there’s probably a lot of really useful free information as well. But I wouldn’t know, because I never get past that second thing.

But seriously, there is a wealth of knowledge relating to just about any possible goal to be found on the internet. And if you’re willing to sift through all the advertisements and whatnot, a lot of it is free. Because human beings love to give advice.

I recently finished the first draft of my first book, a nonfiction account of my Peace Corps experience tentatively titled The Peace Corpse: Misadventures in Love and Africa. As you can probably guess from the title, the narrative is primarily driven by stupid humor.

It’s hard to get a book published if you’ve never been published before. Hell, it’s often hard to get a book published even if you have gotten one published before. But while it still seems somewhat daunting, my task is at least a little easier because I’ve done the research and I know exactly what I need to do to maximize the chances of finding a publisher. And I’ve solicited my friends and relatives for help with proofreading, editing, and trying to find some contacts within the literary world, no matter how tenuous. I can’t help feeling a little dirty and depraved about this, but that might just be because I chose to describe it as “soliciting”.

I have absolutely no idea if I’ll ever succeed at my ultimate goal of becoming a commercially successful writer, but what I can say for sure is that if I don’t succeed, it won’t be for lack of trying. And if nothing else, the process of moving towards my ultimate goal is enjoyable in and of itself, and even if I don’t succeed in the end, I feel like I’m a better person for having tried. The small accomplishments I’ve made along the way are actually improvements to my character, I think.

According to some random study I found on Google when I was looking for something else, 78% of all people fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions. I actually read the study after I wrote most of this post, but they say pretty much the same thing: If you want to achieve your goals, you should 1) Make them specific b) Research the topic so you have a realistic view of what the process entails, and &) break your ultimate goal down into smaller goals that can be accomplished on a day-to-day basis.

I should also probably add that in general it’s probably best to not start drinking until after you’ve finished whatever it was you were trying to do.

The new year of 2011 is an arbitrary Western thing. The Chinese New Year isn’t for another month. But still, that doesn’t mean we can’t make arbitrary goals for ourselves based on our arbitrary calendar. But if you’re serious about accomplishing your goals, you’re probably more likely to succeed if you follow the steps I’ve outlined. Or ignore my advice entirely. One of those two.

I sent out my first Query Letter for requesting an agent to represent my book today. I expect to send many, many more before I’m done. But that’s ok. I know what the process is, and I know what to expect. I’m just happy to be working towards my goals.

My other goal is to become Vice President of the United States of America.

Seriously.